What metal makes a super-light battery for a hybrid car, and also can alter your brain chemistry? That’s right, it’s lithium! There was a fascinating article about a huge deposit of lithium in the salt flats of southwest Bolivia in the New York Times on Monday. Reporter Simon Romero got a great comment from a local leader of salt gatherers and farmers looking to share in the revenues from lithium:
“We are poor, but we are not stupid peasants.”
I love this quote. They know what they stand to gain. They understand their rights, and are confident in claiming them. Bolivia just ratified a new constitution that is designed to help indigenous people to benefit from any exploitation of resources on their lands, so this lithium deposit may be a good test case. According to the NY Times article, car companies are lined up to get access to the metal, so Bolivia is holding all the cards in this game.
Bolivia needs to play this just right: The government must ensure that no large-scale exploitation occurs without the consent of local people, and that any mining revenues are transparently accounted for and used to fund development in the region (and not just line the pockets of foreign companies and ministers in La Paz).
Bolivia has been a mining country for centuries, but it is still the poorest country in South America.
President Evo Morales wants to change this, and the new constitution may be a step in the right direction. Bolivia has also ratified the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (known as Convention 169) back in 1991. This requires the government to work with indigenous people to determine the best use of their lands and resources found on and under them. The stakes are high for the country and for Morales himself if he is not to join the long list of recent former presidents of Bolivia.
A little over a year ago I met Lorenzo Charupá, an indigenous Chiquitano rancher in Monte Verde, a vast territory in eastern Bolivia that the Chiquitanos had successfully established as their communal land under a 1996 law. Charupá told me there were minerals under the land, and they were learning how to manage them. “If a mine wants to come here, they need to ask us first. If we say no, they will not come, and if we say yes, it will only be with a good agreement.”
An even better quote!
Negotiating access to mineral deposits is complicated, but if you know your basic rights you have at least a chance at getting a fair deal.